Four Lives is the most important BBC drama in recent memory.

by | Jan 6, 2022 | All, Reviews

Some dramas make you think, others are there to be enjoyed and quickly forgotten but a handful, like last year’s It’s a Sin are there to shine a light on a section of society who aren’t thought about. When those dramas are good, they’ll stay with you forever. Four Lives, (now available on the BBCiPlayer) is one of those dramas. Easily the best BBC drama in recent memory it recounts the appalling way the families who lost loved ones at the hands of serial killer Stephen Port (Stephen Merchant) were treated by Barking and Dagenham Police.

Neil McKay’s script allows us to spend time with each of Port’s four victims before they have the misfortune to meet him. Aspiring fashion designer Anthony Wallgate ( Tim Preston) is living the life he’d always wanted to, living in London and putting on fashion shows to showcase his work. Anthony comes from a loving family but leaves them behind in Hull to give him the chance to be the person he wants to be. Young, full of hope and ambition, Anthony becomes Port’s first known victim (police would later admit he probably had a lot more that they were unable to connect him to).

Anthony’s death is reported by Port himself. Naively, or through a sense that he wouldn’t be held responsible, Port reports Anthony’s death anonymously. Telling the police it looks as if he has overdosed. Port’s MO was to drug his victims with GHB and leave them propped up against a wall to be found as a presumed overdose either accidental or planned (in those cases Port would write a suicide note for his victim),

Though Port is interviewed by the police when Anthony’s body is found he is able to deflect attention and even when he does go to prison for his involvement in administering the overdose, he’s out in three months for good behaviour. Stephen Merchant is mesmerising as Port. Quiet, childlike and erie, it’s a performance that will stick with me for a long time. At least initially, it’s hard to believe Port could be capable of such horrific crimes. He’s a man who spends his days bidding on toy dumper trucks on eBay.

The script works three ways. 1) it looks at who Stephen Port was and how he was able to carry out his murders undetected.

2) It showcases the alarming amount of ineptitude with which the police handled the case and the grieving families at the centre of it.

3) It shines a light on the families who lost someone and how their family members were marginalised and pigeonholed to fit in with the views of gay men within society.

Anthony’s family are the first to experience the homophobia and utter failings that would plague the case even as more and more of Port’s victims are found.

Anthony Wallgate’s family are stunned by his death but their useless Family Liaison Officer Slaymaker (Michael Jibson) is quick to point out that gay men do use a lot of drugs and that he put himself in harm’s way working as an escort and meeting people online. His mother, Sarah Sak (played by the always brilliant Sheridan Smith) is infuriated at the judgements levelled at her son and insists foul play is involved. The police are quick to dismiss this even when another young man Gabriel Kobvari (Jakub Svec) is found propped up against the wall of a nearby cemetery.

Jakub Svec as Gabriel Kobvari.

What I appreciated about Four Lives was how it introduced us to each of the Four Lives Port would take. There can sometimes be an urgency in dramas that tell stories like this to get to the gristlier parts of the story too quickly ignoring the lives of the people who have been killed. Neil Mckay makes sure his story remembers that this is just as much the story of the men Stephen Port would kill as it is about their killer. Each of the men are bright, intelligent and engaging young men who just happened to meet the wrong person.

There’s a horrendous irony in the fact that Gabriel, who comes to London to be free of the homophobia in his native Slovakia is ultimately killed because he is gay. When we first meet Gabriel he has arranged an online date with John Pape (Rufus Jones). The pair agree they are not well suited but John offers to take Gabriel in to give him a stable address and help him open a bank account for his wages. Their friendship is one of the nicest male friendships I’ve ever seen in a drama. There is never the insinuation that John is falling for Gabriel, it’s a genuine connection and two friends who can rely on each other. When Gabriel tells John he’s moving to Barking, John is visibly upset and will miss him, but he doesn’t stand in his way. Seeing this young vulnerable man in Port’s empty flat is instantly unnerving.

Gabriel confides in Port’s only friend and neighbour, Ryan (Samuel Barnett) that he feels uncomfortable in Port’s company. Although Ryan believes Port to be harmless he makes sure Gabriel has his phone number and offers for his own place if Gabriel ever feels too uncomfortable. Ryan is the only person who really interacts with Port on a regular basis and there are times, like when Port informs him that Gabriel has gone back to Slovakia and died, that you want to shake him and tell the police but, Ryan, even though he knows his neighbour is odd, never really suspects him of anything sinister. Even when they meet after Port goes to prison, he believes that his neighbour was in there for drug dealing rather than anything more suspicious. As infuriating as this might be for the viewer, it does ring true to life. As an unsuspecting dog walker stumbles across Gabriel’s body, the police still refuse to make the connection between his death and Anthony’s.

These men are seen as gay men who experiment with drugs and so there’s a feeling within the police that they brought their deaths on themselves. It’s the victims’ families that are making the necessary links. When Port first goes to prison for his involvement in Anthony’s death Sarah knows there is more to the story. When she discovers Gabriel’s story online she tells a disinterested Slaymaker who is quick to dismiss her claims that the two men’s deaths are linked. It’s only when Sarah and her sister Kate (Leanne Best) get in touch with their local MP, that a rattled Slaymaker rings her, not to ease her worries but to berate her for getting another party involved. One particular exchange after the autopsy particularly stood out. He rings Sarah (who is already struggling with the toll the grief has taken on her, her younger son, her new husband and Anthony’s father) whether she wants to have the body parts that were removed during the procedure to remain with the body or disposed of. McKay’s script, which was compiled using extensive research, interviews and published accounts is full of unfathomable and infuriating insensitivity from the police force that these families were subjected to.

His third victim Daniel Whitworth (Leo Flanagan) was, unbelievably, found in the same exact location as Gabriel and by the same dog walker! It’s the sort of thing you’d dismiss as silly if it were part of a fictional drama, but here it elicits an angry response as still, the police refused to believe the deaths of these gay men were linked.  Part of that is because they never viewed any of the deaths as murders. They dismissed claims by the families that their sons/partners or friends would never or had ever done drugs because it didn’t fit with their own narrative. Daniel’s death was ruled a homicide because a suicide note was found by his lifeless body. Even though police hadn’t properly identified his handwriting, the note said that he was responsible for Gabriel’s death and so that seemed to satisfy the police’s need for further investigation. Even in their inquests Gabriel and Daniel were let down, with the coroner unable to determine whether anyone else was involved in their deaths.

The only thing working in the men’s favour was their family and friends, who time and again fought to keep their names clean. In the case of Port’s final victim Jack Taylor, (Paddy Rowan) it’s his sisters Donna (Jamie Winstone) and Jenny (Stephanie Hyam) who confront the police and make the connections between all four of Port’s victims. Jack’s family is different to the others as they didn’t know he was bicurious so when the police show them CCTV of him meeting a man it comes as a complete shock. The police, in another catastrophic failing, mistakingly think they spot Jack picked up by another CCTV camera but his sisters realise it isn’t him which forces them to look again at how he is found. It is only when one officer makes the connection between the way Jack is found and the others that Port’s name comes up again and he’s re-interviewed by the police.

Stephen Merchant as Stephen Port.

As Stephen Port Stephen Merchant is incredibly compelling. It’s impossible to take your eyes off him. He delivers every line of dialogue with a quiet tone. He has a nervous energy that puts the viewer on edge but also a belief that he didn’t cause these deaths despite fabricating stories about how they ended up dead time and time and time again.

Mckay’s scripts are perfect. They balance Port’s story with those of his victims, the families left broken by their deaths and the staggering lack of empathy or understanding from the people who are meant to protect and fight for them. Port’s cross-examination in court is Merchant at his very best and Port at his most evil. His eventual sentencing is relief and feels as if justice has finally been served, but when Anthony’s mother Sarah meets Jack Sister Donna in the court toilets she says, “I can’t help thinking maybe if I’d have done more your brother would still be here today”  It’s a startling exchange because it’s not Sarah’s job to be fighting for the police to do theirs!

Four Lives is never an easy watch, but it’s a deeply important one. Everyone involved, from the cast to the production team to the families of the victims should be incredibly proud of this. It stands as one of the best BBC dramas in recent memory and a reminder of the power of television drama. I’ll never forget these victims and I just hope it goes some way to improving policing going forward.

Four Lives is available on the BBC iPlayer.

 

 

 

Luke Knowles

Luke Knowles

06/01/2022

Editor of the website and host of the podcast. A general TV obsessive. I've been running the site since 2008 and you can usually find me in front of the TV. My Favourite show of all time is Breaking Bad with Cracker coming a close second. I feel so passionately that television can change the world and I'm doing my little bit by running this site. You're Welcome!

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1 Comment

  1. Vorn Hancock

    A great review Luke. I hope they release this on DVD to add to my library. A minor point, it’s Dagenham (probably bloody auto-correct :-)).

    I’m with you on Cracker. I’ve watched it far too many times and still enjoy it.

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